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Now is the time for the Patriots’ recent draft classes to step up

Related: A pair of Patriots make PFF’s Greatest Day 3 Draft Steals since 2015

Buffalo Bills v New England Patriots Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

The New England Patriots are on to a new era. After losing numerous core members of their Dynasty 2.0 over the course of the offseason — none bigger than the greatest quarterback to ever play the game, Tom Brady — they are banking not just on the established veterans remaining on their roster, but also on the development of their youngsters. And there are many of them: the team currently has 49 players at age 25 or younger under contract.

Of those players, 23 were drafted by the Patriots since 2017 and are therefore still on their rookie deals (as are other players who are over that 25-year threshold or those signed in undrafted free agency since 2018). While the quantity on youth is impressive and makes up a large portion of the team heading into the 2020 season, the quality is a different story especially as it relates to New England’s draft classes between the 2017 and the 2019 offseasons.

New England did find some contributors, yes, but the club’s overall return on draft investment has been underwhelming. At least that is the case when judged through a recent analysis published by Football Outsiders’ Benjamin Ellinger, focusing on draft capital and general success over the last decade. The Patriots have fared generally well — a conclusion also reached by Pats Pulpit earlier this offseason — but have hit a snag over the last three years.

Ellinger writes the following about their draft success:

The most surprising numbers here (although maybe not to Tom Brady) are the last three years for New England. Their 2017 return is the worst for the whole decade at just 0.71%, but their results in 2018 (at 2.07%) and 2019 (at 1.54%) have been terrible as well. That puts New England at sixth-worst in the last five years (they would easily be the worst for the last three years). Has the master lost his touch? Or are there a bunch of young players in New England about to become valuable starters?

The analysis itself is based on Approximate Value (AV), which was created by Pro Football Reference founder Doug Drinen. In its essence, AV compares players based on their contributions to a team from a numerical perspective — be it games, statistics or individual accolades. Ellinger took the numbers for all draft classes over the last decade, and compared them to the capital a team had relative to Chase Stuart’s draft value chart.

In the Patriots’ case, the two categories — draft capital and draft return — and a combination of them look as follows (numbers shown in green are in the top 10 percent; red are in the bottom 10 percent; grey are in the bottom 1 percent):

Benjamin Ellinger/Football Outsiders

The last of the lines outlined here is a combination of draft capital and draft return, with a score of 100% indicating that a team drafted exactly along the expected value lines. As can be seen, the Patriots exceeded expectations relative to their capital six times in the last decade. The problem is that three of the other four happened over the last three years: New England’s 2017 and 2019 draft classes did not produce the expected value — as noted above, 2017’s 0.71% is the worst return value of the decade — with 2018 faring only slightly better.

Needless to say that the players from those three draft classes, plus the rookies added this year, will need to step up their game with Brady and other established starters in all three phases no longer around. When looking at the remaining members of the Patriots’ draft classes between 2017 and 2019, we can easily identify who might be asked to take on bigger roles this year and who has mostly disappointed so far:

2017: LB Derek Rivers (3-83), DE Deatrich Wise Jr. (4-131)

2018: OT Isaiah Wynn (1-23), RB Sony Michel (1-31), LB Ja’Whaun Bentley (5-143), TE Ryan Izzo (7-250)

2019: WR N’Keal Harry (1-32), CB Joejuan Williams (2-45), LB Chase Winovich (3-77), RB Damien Harris (3-87), OT Yodny Cajuste (3-101), G Hjalte Froholdt (4-118), QB Jarrett Stidham (4-133), DT Byron Cowart (5-159), P Jake Bailey (5-163)

As this look at this collection of names shows, the 2017 and 2018 draft classes have only six combined players left on the team. Of those, Isaiah Wynn and Sony Michel in particular will be asked to play prominent snaps in 2020 — Wynn as the Patriots’ starting left tackle, Michel as the top early-down running back. Both men filled those roles in the past, but will need to become more consistent either through their availability (Wynn) or play (Michel). Ja’Whaun Bentley, meanwhile, also could take on a bigger role after New England let Kyle Van Noy and Jamie Collins go in free agency this year.

The biggest spike in contributions, however, will fall on last year’s draft class. Chase Winovich and Jake Bailey already set a good example by showing plenty of promise during their 2019 rookie seasons, but the Patriots will need others to step up as well — in particular N’Keal Harry and Jarrett Stidham: Harry needs to prove that he can be a viable starting receiver after struggling with injuries last year, while Stidham is the top candidate to fill the biggest shoes in pro football and take over Tom Brady’s role as New England’s starting quarterback.

If the two can elevate their play and the Patriots can also get solid performances out of other players listed above, the perception of New England’s recent draft classes will likely change to the better. For the time being, however, they remain a work in progress and still have a lot to prove despite some early success (let alone what undrafted players such as defensive tackle Adam Butler, cornerback J.C. Jackson, wide receivers Jakobi Meyers and Gunner Olszewski have contributed).

With the team’s youth movement underway, however, the youngsters are in a perfect position to show that the Patriots’ recent draft classes are not as bad as the numbers outlined above suggest. And they better, if the team hopes to extend its dynasty into a third decade.